How often do you think about what the US Constitution means to you? I’m willing to bet that you don’t give it a lot of thought on a daily basis; I certainly don’t. But Heidi Schreck is here to warn that it would behoove all of us to think about it more, because many of its presumed protections are extremely fragile.

Of course, that’s not going to come as news to anyone who was awake last summer when the Supreme Court handed down the Dobbs decision and essentially deprived millions of their right to make essential reproductive health care decisions. Schreck’s play – which premiered in 2017 –is clear-eyed about the tenuousness of rights that exist only by dint of Supreme Court decisions. Her description of the Constitution’s many inadequacies, particularly with regard to the protection of women’s rights, was alarming back then (I saw the original production on Broadway in the summer of 2019); now, it’s enraging. 

Tami Dixon as Heidi; photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre

In What the Constitution Means to Me, Schreck (played here by Tami Dixon) takes us back to when she was a fifteen-year-old who traveled around the country competing for college scholarship money by giving speeches about the Constitution at American Legion Halls (the scenic design, by Sasha Schwartz, may transport you back to a Legion or Shriners event of your past, if you’re of a certain age). The show is, on one hand, a master class in understanding the Constitution as a document: not only does Schreck get deep into the weeds on a couple of key amendments, but she also explains the difference between the “negative rights” enshrined in the US Constitution – which protect us from things the government might do to us, like illegal search and seizure – and the many many “positive rights” that are missing, such as a right to health care, education, or gender equality (the fifty year old Equal Rights Amendment has still not passed!) But it is also deeply personal and insistently political. As part of the competition, the contestants were required to “draw a personal connection between their own lives and the great document”; while the teen Heidi found this part of the contest difficult, the adult Heidi is able to connect the dots between the Constitution’s failure to recognize women as full citizens and the domestic violence and sexual abuse suffered by four generations of her female ancestors. Also personal for her (as for many of us) is the (now partially voided) constitutional right to privacy that Justice William O. Douglas carved out of the 9th amendment, in the 1965 Griswold decision that legalized birth control, and that was later used to protect a woman’s right to decide whether or not to carry a pregnancy to term in Roe v. Wade

Schreck employs a digressive storytelling technique that allows her to make connections across space and time and between major historical events and intimate personal history. It’s an approach that eminently suits a project aimed at illuminating how something as abstract as the US Constitution comes to have personal meaning and import; it’s also an approach that allows her to take her audience on an emotional journey that includes a good deal of levity and even LOL humor in addition to anger and grief. Dixon, an experienced hand at such storytelling, is the ideal amanuensis for Schreck – it’s hard to think of another local actor who would be so right for the role – and she is particularly great at shading the range of ire Schreck expresses, from ironic simmer to steely outrage. And while there’s always something odd when an actor plays another actor playing themselves, Dixon’s straightforwardness and connectedness to the text allows us to see the Heidi in her as much as we see her as Heidi.

L to R: Tami Dixon and Ken Bolden. Photo by Kristi Jan Hoover, courtesy City Theatre.

I’ve been writing up to this point as if this is a one-person show, but in fact it includes two other performers. Ken Bolden plays Mike Iveson, who serves at the beginning of the show as the “older white man” Legionnaire judge of the speech competition (looking scarily accurate to type, courtesy of Richard Parsakian’s dead-on costuming), and whose job later in the performance is to provide “positive male energy” on stage, when he offers his own story of growing into his queer identity. 

The other performer is a high-school student who comes on stage in the second part of the show to debate against Dixon on the proposition “The Constitution ought to be abolished.” Depending on the night you see the show, this will either be Fox Chapel Area High School sophomore Swati Mylarappa, or North Allegheny Senior High School senior Lamees Yasir, both of whom are poised, whip-smart, experienced debaters. A flip of the coin determines which side of the argument Dixon will take, and which will be taken by the student; at the end of the debate, a member of the audience is selected to determine which argument “wins.” Both times I saw this show – on Broadway and here at City Theatre – I was simultaneously impressed by the skill and self-possession of the teenaged debater and frustrated by the binary “win/lose” constraints of the debate format. Neither choice – to keep what Schreck has demonstrated to be a deeply flawed constitution, or to abolish it and put our rights at the mercy of the chaos monkeys who are currently holding the strings of power – seems like a good option. 

But it raises the question: what does the Constitution mean to me? To any of us? And along with that question comes the even more pressing one: to whom have we delegated the power to interpret it, change it, and possibly even abolish it? That’s a question that has become even more urgent – and frightening – in the last two years, making the stakes of Schreck’s work feel very high indeed.